A classic series of films, an surprise hit of a TV show, and now a videogame… what more could The Karate Kid franchise ask for? If this was the 80’s still that would be the icing on the cake, or more aptly the crane kick to win the tournament, but we’re not in the 80’s, or 90’s, or even 00’s. A couple of decades later and we demand a lot from our games, and side scrolling beat ’em ups have to deliver on all fronts from story to execution in order to stand out. There should have been a couple of concerns that this has been relatively low profile despite Sony and Netflix’s show ramping up to start the third season, so is there anything to worry about? Does Johnny and Daniel-san’s rivalry leap off the screen and translate well on to our gaming machines? Fans of the programme might get a kick out of the tale, but fighting game fans could be disappointed.
Taking a beat directly from the Cobra Kai show, The Karate Kid Saga Continues tells the story from the perspective of two of the main characters – Eli and Demetri. One is from the Cobra Kai dojo, the other Miyagi-Do, and whichever side you pick at the start is the one you’ll align with for the game. Depending on the dojo, you’ll be taking control of the people you’ll know from the series as they investigate what’s happening in town, and why there are suddenly karate masters dotted all over the place. Maybe investigation is the wrong word for what you’re doing – kicking the stuffing out of everyone on the streets and in the shops is more accurate. With the need to play through as both sides to get a true understanding of what’s been going on that’s caused the ruckus between the two dojos, there’s plenty of time to get acquainted with everyone, alongside their particular styles and abilities. With 2 dojos, 8 playable characters to choose from, an upgrade system, and a structure that presents levels as places on a town map to visit, there’s quite a lot to get through, and it won’t be easy.
Gameplay is familiar 2.5D side scrolling beat ’em up fare. You move from left to right, sometimes going slightly up and down, and the screen locks into place with each fight encounter. Bad guys are distinct in their looks and attacks, and you fight until their life is depleted, or yours is. Tutorial level aside, most of the time you’ll have the choice of a team to take into action and are able to swap between characters with the push of a direction button, but if any of the group gets taken down then they’re out for the rest of the level. If you’re Miyagi-Do then it’s Daniel, Robby, Sam and Demitri; and if you’re Cobra Kai then it’s Johnny, Miguel, Tory and Hawk. Both dojo groups have an elemental power too with the former being ice, and the latter being fire – something that’s not in the series, but, y’know, vidya games. Attacks are performed through the face buttons and link together for combos to deal more damage, and combining directions and attacks triggers the elemental effects. Each character also has unique moves as well as ones that all dojo members share, and these sit on a cooldown timer for use. Add to that a special move that charges up and will clear swathes of enemies that get in the way, and there’s a large amount to discover and practice (the devs say over 250 in total).
Even with a plethora of moves to begin with, the dojo’s come into their own between stages with the ability to improve and unlock more options through the skill trees depending on how many tokens have been extracted from fallen enemies. With branches that force a single selection from three, there’s some tactical thinking needed depending on how you want the character to progress, and it does feel like there are unique builds for each. With challenges for completing actions in levels there are bonus coins to earn, pushing on the development and evolution of each player so it never seems like there’s a drought of skills to enhance. What’s learned as you progress though is that no matter where you spend you points, your foes are always going to outnumber you. There are over 40 different types to tackle, and each has a different strength and weakness that are showcased nicely the first time you meet one of them. Figuring out the best fighting approach is key as they’ll crop up a lot, and ideally you’ll need a quick way of taking them down too because they never come alone. Neither do the bosses – it’s like they’re afraid of going one-on-one. In Cobra Kai: The Karate Kid Saga Continues there doesn’t seem to be any room for honour.
It’s in the combat that some of the good work in move variety is undone. There’s no real point in having loads of potential combos if you can’t land a punch. It happens from the fairly early stages that you’ll get swarmed and will need to manage 3 or 4 fighters at once, and whilst there are techniques to deal with each, it can be hard to focus on the one you want because the 2.5D presentation can have you slightly out of line and force a miss. Don’t worry about the enemies though, they’ll still connect with you – even if they’re off screen and you can’t see or reach them. Incoming attacks are telegraphed by them going red, and the only thing you can do is move out of the way because hitting them causes no damage, nor does it interrupt their charge time. Get all of the onscreen combatants going that shade of red and you’re in for punishment if you can’t roll out of range. It’s frustrating and makes you think it’s less about skill than it is a bit of luck. You want to be able to feel like a bad ass, not a dumb ass.
Picking up a weapon can turn the tide, assuming it isn’t immediately knocked out of your hand, though it does prevent running for some reason. Not that running really works, the controls aren’t great in that regard. Whilst the kick, punch and jump moves are fine, the directional movement is sluggish, and counters and environmental moves need surgical precision to pull off, and the double tap timing for run is a law unto itself. When the fights flow it can be good fun, but when you’re up against some of the aforementioned issues the biggest problem surfaces… some of the levels are just too long and are a slog to get through. You find yourself flitting from frustration to boredom and back again, especially in the mini boss and end of level boss battles. There’s one at Larusso Autos where Tom Cole is the gatekeeper to completion. A fairly undaunting business rival in the series is turned into a 7 foot muscle bound freak that has cars run you over in the game. It’s one of the most jarring experiences to come across, especially after what feels like hours of trudging through the dealership.
It’s a shame that the gameplay experience can’t live up to the presentation and thought that’s gone into the rest of Cobra Kai: The Karate Kid Saga Continues. With bright and colourful environments, nicely put together story cutscenes, and most of the original actors reprising their roles, there’s a feeling of passion for the source material. The authenticity it goes for in the non-gameplay is great, and it’s possibly this that makes the arcade action stand out as the weak link. I half expected a Street Fighter style experience that took you through the All Valley Tournament and let you be the ultimate winner for one of the dojos, maybe with some wax on, wax off training sessions worked in to bring the feel of the franchise. Sadly, this isn’t that, and whilst it’s a competent brawler it’s not going to set the world on fire, or freeze it over.
A PS4 review copy of Cobra Kai: The Karate Kid Saga Continues was provided by Flux Games PR team, and the game is available now on PS4, PC, Xbox One and Switch for around £35.